10 Years After Kim Jong Il's Death, North Korea Calls for Public Loyalty to Kim Jong Un

On the 10th anniversary of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's death, state-run media called for increased allegiance to his son and current leader Kim Jong Un.

For three minutes on Friday, citizens of the capital of Pyongyang observed a moment of silence, bowing their heads as a siren blared within the city and cars, trains and ships all blew their horns. Meanwhile, masses climbed Pyongyang's Mansu Hill to place flowers in front of statues of Kim Jong Il and his father Kim Il Sung and bowed.

North Korea's main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, published articles showing reverence for Kim Jong Il, also asking readers to show more loyalty to Kim Jong Un. Though outside experts doubt the Kim family is losing any power in what the Human Rights Watch calls one of the world's most repressive countries.

However, some believe Kim's absolute power could falter if he does not address COVID-19 pandemic-related issues plaguing the country.

North Korea's trade with China, its biggest trading partner, plummeted by about 80 percent last year, and continued to decrease by another two-thirds this year.

South Korean government estimates say the North's grain production is at its lowest point since Kim took his leadership position a decade ago.

And though North Korean officials maintain that their country is COVID-free, many do not believe this claim due to the country's strong travel restrictions and border shutdowns.

Pyongyang, North Korea, Kim Jong-il
North Korean state media called for increased loyalty toward Kim Jong Un on the 10th anniversary of Kim Jong Il's death. Above, citizens visit the bronze statues of their late leaders Kim Il Sung, left, and Kim Jong Il on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang, North Korea, on December 16, 2021. Cha Song Ho/AP Photo

During an outdoor ceremony, senior North Korean official Choe Ryong Hae called Kim Jong Il "the parent of our people" who built up the potentials for the North's military and economic might. Under Kim Jong Un, Choe said North Korea's "strategic status" has been boosted and urged the public to "faithfully uphold" his leadership.

In an apparent echo of official propaganda, Pyongyang citizen Won Jong Rim also told the Associated Press Television News that "our great general (Kim Jong Il) went through so much hardship, pushing his way along such an arduous path, to build a paradise here, achieving what the people want."

On previous anniversaries, Kim Jong Un paid respect at a mausoleum where the embalmed bodies of his father and grandfather lie in state. But state media didn't say whether he went there this year too.

Kim Jong Il's 17-year rule was overshadowed by a famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of people and international isolation over his nuclear ambitions. North Korea's economy had reported a slight yet gradual growth for the first several years of Kim Jong Un's rule. But the coronavirus pandemic, mismanagement and U.N. sanctions following Kim's nuclear and missile tests have taken their toll.

Kim refuses to return to talks with Washington and Seoul. He has called for building a stronger, self-reliant economy while keeping tough virus restrictions including two years of border shutdowns. Analysts say Kim fears that his country's broken public health system could not afford a major virus outbreak—though he maintains a questionable claim that North Korea is coronavirus-free.

"Unless North Korea accepts offers for denuclearization talks with the U.S., it cannot stay away from powerful international sanctions. Without international cooperation, North Korea must continue to seal off its borders due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19. And this is a North Korean dilemma," analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea said in a recent paper.

The North's advancing nuclear arsenal is the core of Kim's rule, and he's called it "a powerful treasured sword" that thwarts potential U.S. aggressions.

During his 10-year rule, North Korea has performed 62 rounds of ballistic missile tests, which are banned by multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry. The number is compared to an estimated nine rounds of tests during Kim Il Sung's 46-year rule, and 22 rounds during Kim Jong Il's 17-year rule. Four of the North's six nuclear tests and its three intercontinental ballistic missile launches all occurred under Kim Jong Un's rule.

"North Korea marked the 10-year memorial of Kim Jong Il with public ceremonies and state propaganda. More significant will be Kim Jong Un's attempt, after a decade in power, to map out a credible path for post-pandemic diplomacy and economic recovery," said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Pyongyang, North Korea, Mansu Hill
Sirens blared for three minutes in Pyongyang on the 10th anniversary of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's death. Above, citizens lay bouquets of flowers at the bronze statues of their late leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang, North Korea, on December 16, 2021. Cha Song Ho/AP Photo